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updated 07/22/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/22/1991 01:00AM

CHER CALLS HER "TOTALLY NUTS." MICHAEL Bolton calls her "obsessed." But most important, they both call her often. Songwriter Diane Warren's daunting work habits may get on people's nerves—but her songs get them on the charts.

In the past nine years, Warren, 34, has written or cowritten 18 Top 10 hits (including Milli Vanilli's "Blame It on the Rain" and Chicago's "Look Away") and had her songs recorded by everyone from Bon Jovi to Barbara Mandrell. She had a hand in six songs on Michael Bolton's new hit album, Time, Love & Tenderness, and Cher is hoping her new Warren single, "Love and Understanding," will repeat the Top 10 success she enjoyed in 1989 with Warren's "If I Could Turn Back Time."

Despite that track record, Warren seems refreshingly unassuming about her work. "Ideas and titles just pop into my head," she says. "I've written songs on Kotex, lyrics on the palm of my hand. If I don't have a tape recorder, I'll call home and sing into my answering machine." Michael Bolton's 1990 hit "When I'm Back on My Feet Again" is an example. "I came into my office one day, thinking about my [late] dad," Warren recalls. "I just started playing the piano, and soon the tears were running down from my eyes. The song wrote itself." Bolton, however, maintains that the modest Warren takes too little credit for her hard work and attention to detail. "People don't know the side of her that obsesses over songs," he says. "She slaves over them."

And of course, she's willing to fight for them. When Cher initially turned down "If I Could Turn Back Time," Warren responded in the tradition of all great songwriters. "I got on my knees and pleaded," she says. " 'I told her I wasn't going to leave the room until she said yes, and finally, just to get rid of me, she did."

Warren first gave notice of which way the twig was bent at age 10, when her father, a Van Nuys, Calif., insurance salesman, bought her a cheap guitar in Tijuana, Mexico. "I took lessons, and the teacher told my parents I was tone deaf," she remembers. "I just didn't want to do the goddamn scales. I wanted to make up my own little songs."

Warren started sending demo tapes to music publishers as a teen, but it wasn't until 1982 that she got her first break, when Laura Branigan recorded "Solitaire." Three years after that, DeBarge took "Rhythm of the Night" to No. 3, and Warren was on her way. "The thing about having a hit," she says, "is that people become more willing to check you out, to listen."

And if they'll listen, Warren is more than happy to provide. "What social life?" she says. "I hang out with my piano." She spends so much time at her cluttered Hollywood office that a recent weekend at home in the hills above Sherman Oaks, Calif., left her perplexed. "I didn't know what to do," she says. "I tried watching TV, but I hate TV. I thought about drinking a beer, but I don't really drink. I wanted to relax, but I never relax and didn't know how. Finally, after a couple hours, I realized the thing I really wanted to do was write. So I said to hell with relaxing and went to my office."

CYNTHIA SANZ
TODD GOLD in Los Angeles

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